Photo: Alex Anfanger, Lenny Jacobson as Jack and Ben Dolfe in Comedy Central’s Big Time in Hollywood, FL
Photo credit: Jesse Grant
I had a great acting teacher, Ed Kaye-Martin, who said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.” I found this encouraging. I was in graduate school at the time and was almost always uncomfortable. The downside was I had no idea what he meant. It went against everything I learned in undergraduate school. At SMU we studied Stanislavsky who said actors must always be relaxed. Very relaxed. To that end, we practiced slow breathing. We shook our hands and feet to relieve ourselves of tension. In movement class we did deep relaxation exercises that usually resulted in me falling asleep on the floor of the theater lobby. I got an A, so I guess I was doing it right.
Now I know what Ed’s great truth means. I can’t recreate it, but I recognize when the groove of chaos is working. Shooting Groundhog Day was a study in being uncomfortable. Besides the bitter cold, we kept getting new script pages daily. The arc of the film was honed as we shot it. Harold Ramis hadn’t decided yet what the singular day in the film was going to look like, so we shot and reshot the street scenes in various weather conditions – meaning we never had a day off. We never had an hour off. When the snow or rains came, we got the call and Bill Murray and I ran back to the street and began shooting again.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL achieved a level of creative chaos I have rarely experienced on television. Underline “creative.” Chaos is nothing new in television. There is never time. There are always last second changes. When I did Designing Women (in its first season), I started a scene, we stopped unexpectedly. I asked our director what was happening. He explained it was 9 pm, and it was time for the studio audience to go back to prison. Deputies arrived and the entire audience was escorted out and put on buses. We continued our live audience comedy with no audience at all. That was chaos. But not good chaos.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL always reaches for higher and higher levels of madness while keeping its feet on the ground. That makes for a lot of discomfort. Our creators, Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf, took the uncomfortable choice of taking good writing and risked ruining it by throwing out new ideas for us to try in the moment. This was never an exercise in trying to find more excess. Often Dan and Alex would shout out an idea, laugh, stop, confer and then call out to us, “Never mind. It’s funny, but it doesn’t make any sense.”
What does that mean? What is “sense?” And why is “sense” the final arbiter of an idea getting shot?
The 19th century novelist, George Meredith, had a brilliant insight. He said comedy only exists when there is civilization. There must be rules before the rules are broken. There must be a norm for an audience to enjoy the norm collapsing. In this way even something as off the charts as Big Time becomes universal. Making cop movies in a garage, hoping to make show biz connections in drug rehab, and accidentally shooting a dead private eye in a motel room becomes our story. It shows us in an unapologetic and unrelenting way what happens when we lie, when we are ambitious, jealous, afraid, vicious, and courageous. Yes, even courageous.
Comedy isn’t just about everything falling apart. It is very funny to watch these dear lunatics possess the virtues we often lack.